Sand of Bone — Chapter Two

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013. 

To start with Chapter 1, click here.

Chapter 2

Fear slammed her from sleep already tormented with dreams of her brother.  Syrina clenched her teeth against another cry, and grabbed at her throat to tear away the sensation of fingers digging beneath her jaw.  Though she drew her knees to her chest, invisible fists hit her gut and left her struggling to breathe.  Another blow fell, then another.  She stifled her cries in the thin straw mattress, beat her fists against it as if she could drive away her non-existent attacker.  Her cry rose into a wail when heat lanced deep into her shoulder, tearing flesh and muscle from bone, stealing breath and sight and sound and thought—

It stopped.

Her body throbbed with the memory.  She let herself sob as the ache settled deep in her bones, then she sat up and hung her head between her knees.

Syrina knew better than to search for blood or bruises to prove the ordeal real.  Twice before she’d awakened to a beating, and each time had nothing to show but the memory.  She’d screamed for help the first time, only to be told that no one had entered her chamber and no marks could be found.  The second time had been worse than the first, but the result had been the same.  The surgeon had gone so far as to suggest—carefully, and in low whispers—that she had perhaps kept herself in solitude too long.

In any other place in SheyKhala, the merest intimation that one of the Velshaan might be unstable would see the offender arrested, flogged, and then caged in a wagon destined to be fed to the sands, or abandoned to Exile Stronghold.  But the surgeon was already in Exile, just like she was.  Only by beating him, starving him, or locking him in the underground cells could she make his life much worse.  So Syrina had given him sharp thanks for his concern and dismissed him.  She didn’t speak of it again.  But this nightmare…  Hallucination…

She rubbed her hands over her cheeks as if she could scrub away the lingering feel of a stranger’s fists.  She longed to scour herself with soap and sand, followed by a chin-deep soak in scalding water.  But in this barren place, a threadbare towel and a chipped basin of stale water must suffice.

Stiff and sore, she untangled her legs from the blanket and hobbled to the basin sitting atop a canting little table.  She pulled off her sweat-soaked nightshift and threw it in the corner.  Her stomach twisted at the smell lingering in the cloth—curdled milk and rotting grass.  The stench would stay with her all day, sinking as deeply as the blows that left no marks.

After scooping out drinking water with her two small mugs, she used the little water that was left to wash.  She scoured the towel over her skin like a stiff brush on granite, holding every gulp of air as long as she could, refusing to cry again.  When the water was gone, she stared into the empty basin as her chilled skin dried.  Only the nightsighted glimmer of her amber eyes, glinting like small mirrors, broke the dark reflection.

She surrendered to the nausea without a fight, gagging on the bile until her heaving subsided to pained gasps.  Trembling, she staggered to the iron hook jutting from the wall and took down the only other shift she’d been permitted to take into exile.  Like the pair of outer robes hanging beside it, the worn linen had gone from proper ivory to a dingy pale brown that never looked or smelled clean.  She drew it over her head, then twisted her tangled hair into a knot at the nape of her neck.  Despite the smell lingering in her sole blanket, she was chilled enough to want it snugged around her shoulders.

A dim line of light seeped along the horizon by the time she pulled back the leather shutters of her chamber’s single narrow window.  The rising moon of early night sharpened her nightsight, defining every low dune, rocky outcrop, and scattered thornbrush in sharp colorless contrasts of black and gray rimed in silver.  Closer, the old stronghold walls dipped low where wind and sand had eroded the mudbricks.  Soon, the exiles would have to set aside their preferred pastimes to slop in mud and straw.  There was no telling when her bloodkin would send the next pair of inspectors, and no guessing when the disrepair would be deemed cause enough to reduce their rations of food and water.

Syrina glanced at the ragged towel, quickly drying on the floor, and bit her lip.  Half a day’s ration of water, gone.  She didn’t dare take more than her share.  The exiles despised her already—she’d agreed to send some of the Blades here before ending up in Exile Stronghold herself—and she didn’t want to test how easily bitter resentment could be goaded into action.  In her first weeks in Exile, she’d believed her bloodkin would soon bring her home if for no other reason to ensure she lived.  Now, a year later, she wasn’t certain at all.

The scuffing of footsteps outside her door startled her, even though she was expecting them.  Sounds carried easily in the mostly-empty stronghold, and even her stifled cries would have been heard by the Blade standing guard at the base of her tower’s stairs.

“My Velshaan?”

The commander, of course, fetched out of bed to check on the delusional Velshaan.  During her year in Exile, Pyrius had been the sole person to engage her in conversation.  She’d assumed he had no choice, but by the fourth month, she’d glimpsed kindness within his duty-bound respect.  After her first nightmarish attacks, he’d personally stood guard at her door to assure her no one would pass.

He was the closest thing she had to a comfort, but she couldn’t tell him the nightmare had happened again.  She could endure his compassion, not his pity.

“My Velshaan, are you—”

“Is there a problem, Commander?” she called from the window, voice forced into evenness.  She was only nineteen, but she understood the protective shield of composure.

A shuffling of feet answered her.  She pictured the commander wiping a hand down his graying mustache, his telling gesture of uncertainty.  “Blade Rokus thought he heard… something.”

Crying, screaming, begging…  “I’m fine, Commander.”

“Would you like me to come in?”

“Not necessary.”

“My Velshaan—”

“Thank Blade Rokus for his concern, good night.”

“Will you be wanting a tray brought up in the morning?”

Damn him, he wasn’t going to rest until he set eyes on her.  Velshaan she was—even in Exile—but the commander found infinite ways to bypass orders with perfect obedience.  “Open the door.”

The latch lifted, and the iron-banded door creaked open.  Pyrius took a single step over the threshold and dipped his head to her, his shadowed form gaunt from five years of Exile’s privations.  He wore full leathers as if he remained on duty even when he slept, though he’d donned sandals in place of boots, and his dark gray hair hung loose around his lined face.  The deep brown shimmer of his nightsighted eyes scanned the rumpled cot and discarded clothing before he looked at her.  The twitch of his nose told her the smell of her retching still lingered in the air.

“Duty fulfilled,” she said, and turned her back to him.

“My Velshaan, the surgeon does have herbals to settle a queasy stomach.”

“And he may save them for a Blade in need.”

“If I could—”

“Leave.”  She blinked quickly.  “Please leave, Commander.”

She stared at the moonlit horizon until the door closed, then held her breath as his footsteps faded down the stairs.  Tomorrow she’d talk with him about repairing the wall.  Pyrius needed something more to occupy his time than checking her health and giving her dreary reports.

The breeze rose suddenly, colder than the night before.  The scant coal allotted to Exile was not for comfort, but survival, when a little warmth meant the difference between seeing the dawn or freezing in one’s sleep.  Were she a Blade, she’d soon be sharing a bunk for warmth.  But the only person who’d shared her bed was her brother, and his love for her had been eaten by ambition and something… fearful in the thoughts he’d shared with her, some craving he wouldn’t name that had made her believe Exile Stronghold might have become a safer home than the Velshaan palace.

And I loved him so much…

She pressed her fists to her eyes until the need to cry was buried.  Cold, but in control, she strapped the shutters back in place before sinking into the creaking chair behind her wobbly desk.  The furniture helped her maintain the despair-lessening facade that she performed important work in administering the forsaken stronghold, as if the last year was merely the customary season young Velshaan spent learning of governance outside Prime rather than captivity and disdain in Exile Stronghold.

Though more than half the night remained, she knew better than to attempt sleep while the stench of rot still stained her throat.  Instead, she picked up one of the three slim books atop the desk and opened it to a marked page.  After a hard shake of her head, she set to work.

As always, she started with the oldest text, its uneven pages clamped between leather-wrapped wooden slats.  Her effort to translate it was hindered as much by the cramped script and warped parchment as the old-fashioned glyphs that bore only a passing resemblance to present writing.  Sometimes she had to mouth their sounds, seeking meaning in the phonetics, and sometimes she used a much-chewed pencil to sketch the glyphs on the pale wood of her desktop, adjusting line and curve until they looked like a more familiar present-day script.  And when those attempts failed, she stuck the pencil between her teeth and scanned the hundreds of lines of the second text—a messily-written scroll chopped into pages, not nearly as old as the parchment text, filled with haphazardly entered translations of older glyphs and glyph combinations.  An apprentice’s notes, perhaps.  Maybe study records used by one of her ancestors.

When she felt confident enough in her translation, she entered her rendering in the third, mostly blank, book of actual paper that she’d smuggled from home along with the other texts.

It had taken her more than the year to translate half the original text, leaving no question she didn’t share her brother’s gift for languages.  He would have finished the text in scant weeks, would already be learning its secrets, would know he didn’t need his sister at all to become Iasone.

She shivered and made herself sit up straighter.  Raskah had searched the archives of Prime for the parchment text after reading rumor of its existence in a history written during the Woes—those years when Velshaan had battled Velshaan in civil war, nearly wiping out the bloodkin completely.  He never knew Syrina had read that historical report before him, had also gone searching, and had found the text in a dusty crevice hidden behind stacks of double-shelved old ledgers.

By then, Raskah had begun to change—bursts of anger without cause, demands that caused fear rather than respect, even forming his own cadre of Blades loyal to him alone.  Syrina began to believe there was much about her brother she no longer knew.  And when he’d dropped the final stone in the scales—demanding she solemnize their bond as sibling consorts—she had instead begun planning an administrative tour of southern strongholds.

Her greatest mistake had been refusing him outright, and her second had been expecting her bloodkin to stand with her.  Their father had tried to warn her.  She hadn’t believed him.  Thus her intended tour had become a forced journey to Exile, where she would remain as long as her bloodkin wished.  That’s how it had been in the days of her many-great grandparents, when the Velshaan had been plentiful instead of rare—before the Woes had left so few to rule.  Before passing on their knowledge had become secondary to surviving and stabilizing SheyKhala.  Before any open disagreement between Velshaan stirred fear of yet another civil war.

Syrina had two reasons to confess the legitimacy of that fear.  The first was her understanding of the lives and wealth that had been savaged by her ancestors’ brutal ambitions.  The second was her possession of the text in her hands.

Skills of the Iasone.  Lessons of elemental use.  How to touch the life simmering within the very sands of SheyKhala, humming upon every breeze, sighing in the pools of every oasis.  How to use those elements to build and destroy, kill and create.  How to become the sole living Velshaan able to command the desert as well as its people.

But Syrina’s final mistake squeezed the air from her chest whenever it crossed her mind: she had left other texts in that dusty little crevice of the archives, thinking she’d have time to fetch them later.  Not for a moment did she believe Raskah wouldn’t continue searching.  Not for a moment did she think he wouldn’t eventually find it.

A surge of panic set her heart racing.  She pressed her hand to the wall beside her desk, drawing breath after deep breath until the dread eased, until she could feel the ridges and crevices of the stone.  Another breath, and she closed her eyes to concentrate on nothing but where her skin touched the surface of the stone.  Then, following what the translated text had revealed to her only yesterday, sank her awareness beneath the surface.  It hurt—as if massive hands clenched and tightened around her flesh—and she tore her hand from the wall.

Sucking in a breath, she pressed her throbbing hand to her chest.  Slowly, she uncurled her fingers and stared at the faint blotches of bruising that darkened her fingers and palm.  Then she squinted, using her peripheral vision to find the angle that let her nightsight see close details.

Dust clung to her skin.  And when she looked at the wall, to the place where her hand had rested to quest for the miniscule bonds that made stone out of dust, the faintest outline of her palm remained.  A puff of her breath loosed a swirl of dust that hadn’t been there before.

For the first time, and for a small cost of discomfort, the elements had reacted to her touch.  The resulting dust was trivial, but the implications…  She swallowed hard and flexed her aching hand.

Exile gave her the advantage, protecting her from Raskah and keeping the one text out of his hands.  But sooner or later, her bloodkin would call her home, and they might now be more dangerous enemies than the exiled Blades surrounding her.

Sleep could be had tomorrow.  Tonight, Syrina propped her elbows on the desk to resume tempering the sole weapon she possessed—the weapon that could grant her the power of the Iasone before her bloodkin could take it from her.

Chapter 3

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